Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Life Indoors 1928-1939


When I look back, it often seems as if all the interesting things in my childhood took place either in the street, at school or on our occasional family outings. But at least one third of my life was spent at home, excluding sleeping hours, and some interesting things did happen there as well as sad experiences.

I will start with describing the house, and who lived there from 1933 onwards. At some time my fathers' parents had lived there. It was always a rented house. In the 1930s my mother told me that the rent was £1 per week, and there was not much inflation. But this was a high rent for a family man who possibly earned between £3 and £5 per week; so we never lived alone. To start with, my grandmother occupied a downstairs front room; but she soon moved out and lived with my aunt [Violet], Leonard's mother, who became a widow eighteen months after Leonard was born.

Consequently, Aunt Violet had to work, and bought a shop in North End Road, selling sweets and cigarettes. She was glad that her mother was able to live with her and mind the toddler while she served in the shop. Just occasionally, my mother spent a day serving in this shop. After a few years the business failed. My aunt declared that this was because the traffic-lights and crossing just outside the shop had been moved, and not so many people walked past the shop. My father, who often disagreed with his sister, declared that the shop failed because she did not get up early enough and open the shop for the early morning trade. Then Aunt Violet moved and bought another smaller shop which sold ice cream and sweets on the corner of a back shop. When she first opened, she was very generous and gave all the ice-cream free for a garden fete held by the local nuns. Dad remarked rather sourly that this was all very well if she could really afford it. I do not suppose it made much difference because this shop also failed within the year, and my aunt had to take work outside the home, and find a child-minder for Leonard when he was not at school, for in 1936 her own mother had died. My aunt became the manageress of a laundry receiving shop.

We then kept the front room vacant and used it as our best room, in which we had Sunday dinner, a mid-day meal. What people now call lunch was always known as dinner in those days. The evening meal was tea, or high tea, even when it was a cooked meal with meat and two vegetables. My father had a cooked meal when he came in from work, but during the week, he often worked overtime, and maybe I did not see him for days at a time.

The normal working-class home in our street had "oilcloth" and rugs on the floors. The rugs were only there if things were "looking up". I can't remember table-cloths for weekday use. In the mornings I ate breakfast on a table covered with a copy of the "News of the World". This meant that I read some news articles when sitting at table, which my parents would rather I had not seen.

The front room or sitting room contained some elaborate inherited furnishings. There was a marble-topped table with three legs. These legs were ornamented with gilt lions. I have never seen its like. There was also an upright piano, much prized by my father, even though none of us could play it properly. My father managed to pick out the tune "Pale hands, I loved thee". I was never musical, and could hardly recognise a tune. But I used to open the piano sometimes and play each note in turn, from sharp to flat and then the reverse; or sometimes made a discordant noise, until I was told to "shut up". My father wanted me learn to play, but as he could not teach me, and I never had any professional lessons, this was quite impossible for me. He seemed to imagine that it was something one could "pick up". But I did not like the piano much. I preferred reading, or playing quietly with bricks, puzzles or an occasional clockwork toy. I always envied my cousin who had a "Meccano" set". I did not like dolls, and often asked for a "Meccano" set or some more interesting clockwork toys. One concession was made to me, and I was bought a small clockwork train set. My father liked playing with this, secretly. He also did my jigsaw puzzles before I had access to them. I noticed that everyone likes to play sometimes, whether they are nine or ninety!

Having a newspaper on the kitchen table for breakfast never seemed incongruous with having what would now be classed as rare antique furniture in our front room. As a child I did not know its value. There was also a marble clock, which I was not allowed to touch. It stood on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, covered by a box-shaped glass case. The glass case was tipped with red baize cloth to prevent chipping. The numbers on the face may have been black on gilt; it was a magnificent clock. It never occurred to my parents to pawn this when times were hard, for sometimes my father was temporarily workless, even though a gold watch and a pair of gold cuff-links were regularly pawned. It seemed as if these gold items were kept for the sole purpose of being pawned; I never saw my father wearing them!

We also possessed a long gate-leg table, which was also kept in the front room. There were two wooden chairs with soft seats and arms, and two other soft chairs. My parents occupied the chairs with arms. The lodger and myself used the others for week-end meals. At these times we used a starched white tablecloth. The most elaborate meal of the week "Sunday dinner all roasted" as I called it was served here. We usually had an apple pie with thin cream. On Sundays evenings there was watercress with bread and butter, or sardines with tomato. My parents ate cheese, but I was never allowed to touch this. "Cheese is a food for adults", my father told me. He also frowned on the use of pepper, although salt was pronounced essential. When I gave up added salt at an early age, he remonstrated with me. My mother used to pander to my tastes when my father was absent, as he usually was at weekday mealtimes, so I never took much notice of his ideas on food. However, I did not eat any cheese until war-time, when we glad to eat whatever we could get.

This front room was the only one with a large fireplace, where in winter we had a big, roaring coal fire. It was never kept as an ornamental room, or as a "parlour", but was in regular use, for meals,and sitting and listening to the wireless in the long winter evenings, or for Leonard and myself to play in, on rainy or cold Saturday afternoons, when my mother went out shopping with Aunt Violet, or went to look round the local pubs to find my father, while my aunt did other business.

Leonard and I did not usually play with matches as we had been warned against this; except on one occasion when we re-lit some half-used birthday cake candles. When indoors, we usually played a game called "Feet off Ground", which the adults knew nothing about. The idea was to do a circuit of the room by climbing from one piece of furniture to another, including tables, chairs and piano, and also the window-sill, which had a large indoor ledge. We excluded the mantelpiece as too narrow. On day while we were playing this game, Leonard accidentally knocked a small chip of wood off one corner of the piano, exposing a pale wood surface. For weeks afterwards, I was castigated by my father for this. "Even if Leonard had done it, I should not have allowed him to do it," I was told. I complained to my cousin Leonard and he just laughed.

Our house was not the site for many social callers. Apart from my aunt and cousin who lived a few streets away, callers were almost unknown, but, though I was an only child, the house was always full.

My mother let the middle room downstairs to a woman lodger, and the similar one upstairs to a man. This was why I did not recall much about what these two rooms were like. Usually I did not enter them. They were pleasant rooms overlooking the small back garden. In the early thirties, the second room upstairs was occupied by Mr Cope, a coalman. He was solidly built; his skin appeared grey as if coal-dust had lodged in it, and he had two fingers missing from one of his hands. This gave him a somewhat frightening appearance. Nevertheless, as a small child, this was the only lodger I ever teased. I would stand below the stairs and call up "Old Mr Copey, Old Mr Copey!" as soon as he had ascended the stairs in the evenings. Naturally he wanted to rest after a heavy days's work delivering coal from a horse-drawn cart, then looking after his horse (there may have been two horses) and stabling it. I knew little about Mr Cope's daily work in the 1930s, but this man fascinated me. He did not chat to the family; was taciturn most of the time, but after I had called up to him on some evenings, he used to lean over the stairs and say "If you don't stop, I will empty a bucket of water over you!", which was enough to send me scuttling away.

Not far away from us there was an alley-way called the mews; I never walked that way until after the war when horse-drawn carts had disappeared. but then discovered that the cobble-stoned mews contained a row of sheds with flats over them. These must have been used for the horses.

Next to Mr Cope's room upstairs, but at a slightly lower level was a back room where I played and had meals in summer time. It was not used much during winter, as there was no heating. Mr Cope was provided with a gas-fire and slot-meter; likewise there was a gas-fire and gas-ring in the lodger's room downstairs.

Miss Ethel Flegg, possibly born Islington 1909, registered to vote from 59 May Street 1931 to 1935. In 1933 Mrs Violet Mary Nobel was also registered to vote. Ethel Flegg may have moved to 104 Westbourne Grove, W2 (1938).

Ethel, the young woman lodger downstairs was the first occupant of this room and had been with us for many years. She was very quiet, did not eat with the family, occasionally she spoke to my mother in the passageway. I was always polite to her, and said "Thank-you Ethel", when she made a new dress for one of my dolls. I threw these dolls away at the age of seven and kept only a teddy bear, but by this time Ethel had disappeared and a new woman who had a job as a "Nippy" at Lyons corner-house occupied the room. Mary was far more sociable.

As a waitress, Mary had a black, uniform dress, with a row of small pearl buttons, as trimming, in a straight line down the front, from neck to hem. Mother often invited her to sit with us, by our coal fire on winter evenings. She would bring her dress with her to mend, which usually meant replacing missing buttons.

"It is a very good job. Only very bright girls get taken on as a Nippy", said my mother and my father agreed.

Mary said, "It isn't such a good job. It's very tiring, and we have to examine our dresses every evening. We would get the sack if there was one button missing."

I said nothing, but privately thought that it was a horrible job, as I hated sewing, and thought the only "good job" was serving in a chemist's shop. I did not envy my mother much either, when I saw her on her hands and knees whitening the front step, or when she had to shake mats in the back garden.

"One day things will be better", said my father."Mr Wilmot, a Labour candidate is standing for election. If he gets in things will be better."

Vaguely, I was aware that my father was very interested in politics, though I did not know much about it.

We had one of the first wireless sets, a full valve set, not a crystal set with earphones, though several of these crystal sets used to litter the upstairs sitting room. After I had listened to children's hour from five to six each day, my parents would listen to the six o'clock news. Occasionally, I would hear snatches of news which sounded like "The Nutzis are marching.", and it sounded ominous.

"What are Nutzis?" I would ask, but at eight years old, my father thought it was better that I did not know. He said that the news was not for children.

However there was an area in which I was precocious. My mother left her magazines for me to read the children's page. But I was soon reading the whole magazine, especially the articles on the birth of a baby. There was a series of in-depth articles on the changes in the woman's body during the whole nine-month period, and I eagerly read these articles, before my mother noticed and said, "I don't think that is suitable for you". But it was too late!

When Mr Cope left, he was replaced by Harry, who took evening meals with our family. As I had high tea, I did not see him during the week, but at week-ends, he often sat down to high tea with my mother and me. This happened sometimes when my father was out on Saturday afternoons, and was an occasion of mild jealousy. My father did not mind Mary sitting with the family, but was not so keen on Harry!

My mother said, "There's nothing in it. Harry is always polite, and never grumbles. You could take a lesson from him. Yes, I would be pleased if you always treated me as well as Harry does," she told my father.

My father went out all Saturday afternoons. "He can draw a crowd of some hundreds", said my mother. "But it does not get us anywhere. He gets up on a soap-box and speaks to people." This was left-wing politics. Later on, I found out that my father had composed his speeches with the help of popular books like "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists", and something from Trotsky and Lenin. He carried on talking in this vein most of his life, but after the war, never more in public. Sometimes he would practice speaking with relatives present. This was not very popular with my aunt and Leonard, who preferred the Conservatives. Dad always spoke about current events; he was never very theoretical. At this time in the thirties, he thought he was influencing people, though he told me that he never joined any political party himself. He wanted so much to be his own man; perhaps his working life had not been spent as he would have wished. He always wanted to continue with the engineering work he had learnt while an artificer in the First World War. Instead of this, he had to continue in his father's trade as an interior painter and decorator, which he found boring. He made up for this by reading "The Wireless World," with its intricate diagrams, each week, and he constructed our wireless set in about 1935. But the drawback was that he always wanted to dismantle it, in order to make improvements, just when my mother wanted to listen to a programme.. I used to help in this work, by placing innumerable copper or zinc rings on old-fashioned condensers, which could be taken apart and constructed from scratch. The accumulators had to be taken to the shop nearly every week to be charged, but as yet I did not do this. These were quite heavy objects, and if not carried carefully, the acid would spill out from them. there was also the "mains battery" which would last six months or so. It was a tragedy if if failed when we short of money, as it was expensive to replace. Sometimes my father would attempt to revitalise the "mains battery" at home, by putting it on the table and bending over it in order to drop small amounts of fresh acid into each of the little cells, but this was rarely successful. In the meantime, the wireless was out of action, and my mother missed her small pleasures of listening to an afternoon play; or the horse-racing on a Saturday afternoon. With to-days' advanced technology, no-one has this opportunity to tinker with small electrical items. What has replaced this is tinkering with motor-car engines.

Until the age of ten, I slept upstairs in the same room as my parents. This bedroom was massive with two large sash windows, looking out on to the street. My parents' double bed stood against the wall between the two windows.

Often I experienced anxiety when I saw my mother cleaning these windows. She sat on the sill with her legs dangling inside, and the lower window pane partly closed on them. I had never seen anyone else clean windows like this; but we had to economise most of the time and did not employ a window-cleaner.

At the end of 1936, at Christmas time, I had quite a high fever and spent Christmas in bed. The whole family was in low spirits. My father was also in bed with possibly influenza, and lastly my mother also succumbed. My mother seemed particularly miserable. She said "This is not 1936, it is Nineteen-thirty sick". I am not sure whether I had chicken pox, measles, German measles, or whether it was influenza, like my parents. It was not whooping cough, because I remember having this illness last of all. In turn I had all these illnesses, but fortunately, nothing more serious. Whooping cough was the worst, because it left me with a cough for a whole year afterwards.

In 1936 we had been sent a goose as our Christmas dinner. Mother was upset because none of us could eat any Christmas dinner. There was no means of keeping the bird from going bad, so in addition my mother was worrying about the wastage. I don't know what the lodgers were doing, but they might have been away with relatives, because I don't think anyone ate the goose. To this day I have not ever tasted goose. This present came from Lady Shields, my mother's former employer. Her sister, my Aunt May, still worked for Lady Shields. The two sisters had been in service together with this medical family. Sir Douglas Shields was a well-known doctor, an ear, nose and throat specialist, who worked at a private clinic in Park Lane, and also at St. George's Hospital, which used to be a London teaching hospital. Lady Shields was fond of Gladys, and Gladys' child, as she called me, and would send a present for my birthday, and at Christmas, besides sometimes sending something for our Christmas dinner. My father always said "She was a very good lady", and I had to write a polite letter, to thank her for these presents.

My mother had not liked working in service. She was quite an enthusiastic supporter of left-wing politics, but this meant the Labour Party and voting for Mr Wilmot. But when she was angry with my father, she would say "Your promises are like pie-crusts, made to be broken". I thought this was an original expression, but years later I discovered that in fact , it was a quotation from Lenin!. "Never be anyone's skivvy" she told me.

I thought "I am lucky, because I won't have to be anyone's skivvy; I am going to work in a chemists' shop."

However this left-wing politics never made my parents dislike individuals." As a Lady, Lady Shields was one of the best. But we should not have to get up at six-o'clock each morning and work until eleven at night, with only one half-day off per week, with possibly some rest on Sundays," said my mother.

She told me that she was glad to get married and be able to give that sort of life up. But she said that she would have been glad to have been a telephonist or something like that." My sister Betty was lucky", she said, " and never had to go into service. She was the youngest, so was able to afford to stay at home and work in a local shop". This meant that one's working life did not occupy a twenty-four hour day, not that it was so very wonderful.

But to me her life looked as hard as ever. This was why I was always being urged to work hard at school, so that I would do have more opportunities in life, and I think partially succeeded in that

When Aunt Violet called at the house, she never stayed long. She often left Leonard with us on Saturday afternoons and went out to do business. Leonard had never known his father, who had been an artist, twenty years older than his mother. He died at an early age, when he was about 47, and Leonard only 18 months old. I remember a shadowy figure, who told me off when I visited the studio flat for sliding on cushions across the floor. Aunt Violet spent the remainder of her working life in shops and offices.

Aunt Violet when she visited told me about other sad deaths in the family.

There had been child deaths in our families. My mother lost a baby boy called John at the age of two weeks, born about two years before me. At the same time, Aunt Violet lost a baby daughter, called Rosie. As these events occurred before Leonard and myself were born we felt no anxiety about them. It was Aunt Violet who liked to tell me about them. She had baptised my brother John as he lay dying; she had visited my mother in May Street at this time. She told me that it was permissible in the Roman Catholic Church for anyone to baptise a dying person who had not been baptised and she felt it was her duty to do so, as my mother was not Roman Catholic, but had not objected.

Many times Aunt Violet told me about her sister Alice who had died from TB at the age of 17. She was the youngest of the family and had had a private convent school education. On leaving she had taken a job as a filing clerk, but this did not last long. She was reputed to be the most saintly member of the family, the type who would happily have become a nun. "She looked beautiful just before she died", Aunt Violet told me. "We visited her in the sanatorium and thought she was getting better, but she coughed her lungs up and died very quickly." I thought this description rather morbid and wished Aunt Violet would not talk about her sister "coughing her lungs up". I began to worry that this would happen to anyone who was not careful!

Sometimes I visited the flat where Leonard and his mother lived. This was continually changing because after her two sweetshops had failed, she had several flats before finding one which was reasonably comfortable. There was a bathroom, which was something we did not possess at May Street. I played in this bathroom with Leonard, by filling the bath with water, and sailing a small boat which propelled itself. He seemed to have the most sophisticated toys. His mother doted on him of course, but he had to learn independence early. I heard that he had learned to make his own custard; before the age of eleven my mother did not encourage me to have any interest in the cooking, so he was ahead of me in this respect.

1937 was quite a disrupted year. After recovering from illness Christmas 1936, I often had a cough, or streamy running colds. That was why we often visited the chemist for cough mixture. Still I laughed about it and said that I was not ill, when someone suggested that I should be sent away to an open-air school. I did not want to be sent away anywhere; and it never happened!

Our regular lodgers departed, and we had a succession of people who did not stay long. My father was sometimes without work, and I heard that he had walked out of some jobs. I did not know the reason for that, but at this time my mother used to get very worried.

One day when she was buying me a comic, I said "Perhaps you had better not buy me a comic. We might not have enough money for a loaf of bread by the end of the week". I was about nine years old then. "Things are not quite that bad," I was told. There was just a vague uneasiness in the air.

Then my father stayed away from home for ten weeks on a job. Mother said, "This was good." He was at Morecambe in Lancashire, and was earning good money.

One day our address appeared in the local paper. The lodger from upstairs had stolen a watch from the lodger downstairs, and the police had been called in. I never regarded the police as friends, but neither were they enemies. They were just people that it was sensible to keep one's distance from. This was not a serious crime, and somehow I thought it was exciting to have one's address in the paper.

This incident was quickly forgotten, but a little while later the police called again. This time they were enquiring about two young men, who had stayed one week, sharing our upstairs room. It turned out that they had been members of the IRA and had left a small explosive device on Hammersmith Bridge. It had gone off, without hurting anyone.

"I would never have guessed there was anything wrong with those men," said my mother. "They were polite, paid their rent, and I thought they were students or something similar."

We were lucky to have a more stable person to rent our room downstairs in 1938. This was Miss Snailham. "She has passed the Matriculation exam, and is very well-educated," I was told.

About this time my father got a regular job with "Harrod's Stores", as a foreman, in charge of a team of decorators , working mainly in gentlemen's houses. Gentlemen was a term we used to designate the better-off, or what might be called the upper middle-class. Dad decorated a well-known lady's house with his team, then told her off before leaving, because she had not given a big enough tip to his team. He must have been quite polite; no one got the sack.

We were doing better in 1938 and 1939 than we had ever done before, and my mother soon got an all-electric kitchen, The back room upstairs was converted, and I was given the middle room upstairs as my own bedroom. I was ten years old. We were able to manage with only one lodger, and my mother looked forward to a more restful life. There was more time for her to play games with me in the evenings, and we got what we considered a wonderful board game called "Monopoly".

Instead of indoor jobs, my mother was always sending me on errands. I also had to weed the back garden, and Leonard sometimes helped with this on fine Saturday afternoons, especially while my father was in the house. As soon as he left, we stopped and played games in the garden. Nevertheless the weeding got done.

There were always hollyhocks and nasturtiums in the back garden, and a rambler rose growing up one wall. There was a high wall at one side and at the back. At the other side there was no wall, but an old shed without a roof blocked the view over into the other garden. Besides flowers, we also had a tree. This tree stood against the back garden wall at the farthest point from the house. It never fruited all the years I knew it, from the early 1930s until 1938, and I never asked what kind of tree it was. It was known as the tree. I knew very little about trees at this time, although I did learn many of the common names for wild flowers during holidays. However in the summer of 1939, in August the tree bore two fruits. It seemed like one of the great wonders of the world.

My parents were apprehensive. The Munich crisis was over a year ago; there had been an Anderson shelter in the garden since early spring, they knew that war was coming. For the first summer I stayed at home and did not stay at my grandmother's for a holiday. I was somewhat unhappy and uneasy. Then on that beautiful summer day Dad picked the one ripe fruit from the tree. "Eat it", he invited. But there's only one, why don't you have it?" I said.

"You have it." "But are you sure it's not poisonous", I asked. "What is it called?" "It is a nectarine." So I ate it. It seemed the most delicious fruit I had ever eaten in my life, like a present from the garden of Eden.

Peaches and grapes I had seen, as presents for invalids, but not nectarines. The proliferation of fruits available on modern fruit-stalls was quite unknown. Banana, oranges and apples were the only sort of fruit we commonly ate, and these were much enjoyed, especially baked apples, one of the sweets for Sunday lunch. With this we often had a small carton of single cream. This was regarded as a treat. Looking back, I must say that at most times, we ate well. One reason for this was that my mother was a good cook, a discerning shopper, and as she had to cook for lodgers as well as the family, looked upon this as her main job. She never went out to work during her married life, until war started, but the work of looking after a succession of lodgers would be regarded as a small business to-day, if people were willing to undertake it. These were also the days of small families. There was no baby boom. Most of the children I knew were only children, or had, at most, one or two brothers or sisters.

Firework day on November 5th was a memorable event each year. Leonard with his mother was always invited round. The twelve fireworks were set off at intervals by my father. I was not allowed outside, but had to watch through the scullery window. I did not like this as Leonard was allowed outside.

However I went outside after all the rockets had gone off to see the Catherine Wheel which was always fixed to the old shed, and could not be seen from the window.

I could not make sense out of this discrimination, as it seemed to me that Leonard was more likely to be careless than me, and was in just as much danger of being hit by a rocket. The fireworks in the 1930s were much smaller than those sold to-day; private family displays were usual. I did not hear of any accidents with fireworks, but the children in the street were not allowed to play with the fireworks on their own.

On the day following Firework day, Leonard and I would search the garden for an unexploded firework. We never found one.

One Saturday my father spent the afternoon in the garden, making a cage on the ground with wire netting and stakes. A pigeon had wounded its wings and could not fly. We kept it as a pet for two months. I got very fond of it, feeding it titbits whenever I could. One day my father examined it and said it was ready to go. He opened the cage and we watched it fly away.

"Why couldn't we keep it?" I asked.

"We were only keeping it until it got well, said Dad. "Now it's well, it needs to fly."

For a few days afterwards I missed the pigeon, and thought what a lot of trouble my father had taken to save it.

Built into the house but with the entry outside was the only lavatory in 59 May Street. We had to use this whatever the weather, and there was no lighting inside. This is the reason why we kept chamber pots under our beds. Emptying these pots was another of my mother's unpleasant jobs early in the morning. There were outside lavatories in the school playgrounds which froze in winter. Our outside lavatory was built into the structure of the house and escaped this.

I cannot remember any burst pipes in spite of the fact that bedrooms were never heated. The large coal fire downstairs was sufficient to take the worst of the chill from the house. Additionally, the lodgers were using their gas-fires. The downstairs kitchen was the gloomiest room, and it was damp with condensation from the cooking. My mother was very glad when in 1938, she abandoned it and had an all-electric kitchen fitted in the back room upstairs.

On one side of the house lived a retired couple, Mr and Mrs castle. On the other side lived Mr and Mrs Edwards, a young couple with children. These children were not very friendly. the only children invited into the garden were Lois Eynon and Jessie, both about two years younger than me. These were very well-behaved children, with whom I played ball and skipping sometimes. But it was Leonard who came into the garden most often. But by September 1939 Leonard had been evacuated to a farm in Devon.

In 1939 I left the house for about a year and I came back again for another brief period in 1940. The house and the street and school were very much changed then, which is the subject of another chapter.

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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.